This piece appears as part of Highsnobiety Jazz TV, three days of music that will turn our digital platform into a public access television station dedicated to the art form of jazz. Head here for the full series, and browse our accompanying set of merch here.
“People think it means a certain thing…” Kamasi Washington said of the state of jazz in June of this year. “Jazz inherently is music of freedom and of the soul. The reason we can play to a crowd of 20-somethings is because they realize that jazz has evolved, and it’s the music that defines this era.”
Encouraged by the decrease in the average age of his show attendees, the comments of the cosmic sax bastion widely accepted as today’s answer to John Coltrane lends weight to the idea that by creating without boundaries, modern jazz artists have struck a chord with a generation that has no use for semantics.
Sparked by the release of his sprawling, three-disc opus The Epic in 2015, Washington has been on the frontlines of the genre’s meteoric rise over the past few years. While he certainly isn’t impartial, the 39-year-old band leader is well-equipped to evaluate the roots of the dizzying paradigm shift jazz has undergone. For artists like Washington — and his like-minded peers and collaborators Thundercat and Kendrick Lamar — there is a general feeling that jazz has escaped the cultural alienation of recent periods in its history, but now it’s upheld by data.
Since 2014, Spotify has reported that 30 percent of jazz streaming is carried out by users under 30. Similarly, Deezer reported a 15 percent hike from 2018 to 2019 in 18-25-yearolds engaging with the genre. For many of its Gen X or even millennial-aged practitioners, this boom period will represent the first time in living memory that the genre has galvanized the hearts and minds of the youth.
Once closely intertwined with fashion trends and used as a conduit through which racial and socio-economic barriers were challenged, its heyday isn’t viewed with such reverence due to the quality of the music alone, but the perception-altering power that it wielded.
Now, fostered by the ingenuity and fearlessness of this new crop of artists, jazz is in the midst of reawakening and realigning an awareness of both the need for and the existence of change.
While pockets of revivalism can still be found, jazz’s routes back to the heart of youth culture have been forged, as Washington suggests, through a conscious fusion with the modern world. As music continues to move towards a fluid, post-tribalistic space, either an affinity for hip-hop or direct integration into its circles has emerged as a common thread among those pushing jazz forward.
Where South Central-born saxophonist and frequent Kendrick Lamar collaborator Terrace Martin has candidly informed NPR that, “if it wasn't for [A Tribe Called Quest’s] Midnight Marauders album, I would not be interested in jazz,” others, such as Canadian trio BadBadNotGood, see its sonic framework as simply “a tool people have used to play contemporary music.” In their case, reimagining the work of their favourite artists — such as MF Doom, Tyler, the Creator, and Earl Sweatshirt — served as a gateway to collaborative projects with Ghostface Killah and soundtracking Virgil Abloh’s debut Louis Vuitton show.
From the suburbs of Toronto to Paris Fashion Week, BBNG’s journey illustrates the path from Internet-based obscurity to sought-after creators in their own right. But for outfits such as New York’s Onyx Collective, their ties to wider culture are dyed in the wool.
Led by saxophonist Isaiah Barr and drummer Austin Williamson, the group — which can contain as many as a dozen players at full capacity — made their name through a trilogy of EPs dedicated to capturing the Lower East Suite. Fusing reverence for the city’s storied past with modern sensibility, their affiliation with streetwear stalwart Aaron Bondaroff’s Know Wave meant that, in conjunction with their 2016 debut 2nd Avenue Rundown being co-released through Supreme, they had the opportunity to form allegiances with forward-thinking artists including Nick Hakim, Princess Nokia, and Dev Hynes. Operating out of their Chinatown studio, Barr’s intentions for the group were to uncover “the cracks in what remains” and “find a space where we could create.”
Yet where his 2017 remarks to The New York Times referenced their physical headquarters, the idea of crafting their own lane is just as applicable to their community-centric approach to crafting music, clothing capsules, and everything in-between.
“Whether it be collaborating with designers and having a musician shoot the lookbook to working with artists on the backdrop, and then trying to make that backdrop into recycled tote bags or pants, I just really want this stuff to feel alive,” he told Vogue in March of this year.
No matter if they’re reinterpreting Rodgers and Hammerstein or lending their interpretative knowhow to A$AP Rocky, Onyx are carving out an expansive legacy in much the same way that many MCs pursue a broad portfolio.
In the same vein, the multifaceted identities and DIY spirits of Onyx Collective and the like-minded group West Coast Get Down — whom founder Miles Mosley has dubbed “The Wu Tang Clan of Jazz” — mean that they more closely resemble classic rap crews than the outwardly demure jazz ensembles of old.
In other instances, these varied personalities can exist within one man; sax virtuoso Shabaka Hutchings has found himself at the centre of two of the UK’s biggest — and vastly different — exports of jazz’s audacious new wave. Moulded by London’s Tomorrow’s Warriors program that mentored performers from diverse backgrounds, Hutchings has come to wield psychedelia in one hand and incendiary home-truths in the other.
Within his Sun Ra-inspired trio The Comet Is Coming, Hutchings guides listeners through interplanetary journeys. As the maniacal leader of Sons Of Kemet Hutchings highlights the putrid evil of British imperialism and its long-lasting effects among other vital issues. Parachuted into the wider public eye via 2018’s Mercury Prize-nominated breakout album Your Queen Is a Reptile, the record aligned afrobeat, dub, grime, and healthy doses of frenetic tuba with odes to Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, and South African anti-apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu.
Across his musical endeavors, Hutchings embodies the breadth of what can be accomplished within modern jazz’s soluble borders. More concerned with “spitting out fire” than “standing stationary in front of a microphone giving a nice round sound,” Hutchings’ view of jazz as a mode of expression to reflect on the perilous state of the world — or explore the astral plane — isn’t anything new within jazz history, but the profound sense of consciousness expressed by today’s current crop of artists is new indeed.
From the "stretch music" of New Orleans’ Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and his incredible 2019 LP Ancestral Recall through to drummer/band leader’s Makaya McCraven’s insistence that his output should be “socially challenging, not technically challenging,” there is an increased onus on following in the proud tradition of Charles Mingus or Nina Simone by using their renown to highlight systemic injustices. Unwilling to remain silent in such turbulent times, these artists’ displays of defiance, and, in Sons Of Kemet’s case in particular, the traction that they’ve gathered, only strengthen the case for what this revised incarnation of the genre can accomplish.
Whether it manifests in an artist’s ties to the fashion world, seamless crossovers into other genres, or through using your platform to challenge the malfunctioning status quo, the undercurrent that’s powering contemporary jazz all seems to stem from a shared desire to connect on a larger cultural scale. Populated with distinct brand identities, mission statements, and high-profile affiliations, the artists that are leading the charge for this formerly marginalised artform are embracing the 21st century in all of its boundary-less glory.
So, while West Coast Get Down’s Miles Mosley believes that jazz’s resurgence boils down to a “natural reaction to rampant micro music,” its newfound aura of necessity arises from a far less cynical place. In a timeframe where consumers are unwilling to anchor themselves to one sound or style, the inclusivity of modern jazz allows it to feel, for the first time in decades, like the music of now.
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